Let me start this by telling you a little tale; once upon a time – no, just kidding, it’s just that I love telling tales! harrumph.. I recently went on a city trip which I experienced as highly stressful. It was super noisy, crowded, the sunlight was too bright because it got reflected by dozens of skyscrapers, the sensory input seemed never-ending, the consumption too abusive and too abundant and oh, so mindless. After spending multiple hours in this triggering environment including lots of traffic and honking cars, I arrived back home – which at that point was the French countryside. My body felt shaky, my forehead was glowing and my entire system was beyond restless and exhausted. What did I do to calm myself down, find inner peace and let go of the stress I had just experienced? I almost ran to the stove, chopped half a kilo of apricots and made a compote! Does that sounds crazy to you? I get it. HOWEVER, all craziness put aside, this was my refuge. My way to save the day and seek comfort in something I truly absolutely and full-heartedly enjoy doing.
When I told this story to my mother, she said „Judith, you definitely get that from me, I always bake cakes when I’m stressed!” (you must know, my parents have some sort of competition going on with claiming where us kids got our traits from. Traits like being motivated, intelligent and sporty are very popular whereas characteristics like being lazy or unreliable are obviously less desirable and genetics are great to shift the blame, eh?). In any case, I think she’s right. To me, kitchen means home. At my parents‘ house, the kitchen is the place where we spend most of our time, where we live. It used to be a tiny room but over the years, my parents turned it into a large space with a big wooden table, a comfy red dining couch and old dark wooden chairs. When searching for one of us, don’t even think of going to the living room. The refrigerator in the kitchen is our television. Every Sunday, my mother baked a cake; either apple pie (of course with spelt flour, honey and lots of cinnamon), plum cake (the good type that has 70% plums and 30% whole wheat yeast dough) and chocolate cake (raw cacao and ground almonds as the main ingredients – yum!). As a child, the smell of a freshly baked cake had such an impact on me and I still carry this Sunday-cake-loving with me until this very day. So thank you, Mama Gilles, for providing me with this very useful and tasty (!) stress coping mechanism, I shall bake many cakes and hopefully not all of them will be the result of stressful city trips! (I think I learned my lesson this time and will always choose the forest over a crowded city square..)
Eating to cope?
Stress and food are linked in many different ways, not just in the way that I described above. For example, many of us turn to eating comfort foods when stress arises. I certainly have done that. Carbs and fats are super tempting when trying to quickly relieve stress and seek distraction, which oftentimes ends in overeating, guilt, regret and frustration. Quickly, stress and eating are correlated and turn into a stress coping mechanism – however, seeking comfort in unhealthy dishes doesn’t help us solve the problem at all. As you can imagine, going to the supermarket after a stressful day just to end up buying a bunch of sugary and fatty items doesn’t get you to where you want to be – a steady mindset and contentment. In fact, I’m sure that shoving a pack of cupcakes or a bag of crisps into one’s face never helped anyone.
But (yes, there’s a but), here are the good news: food actually can help us to reduce stress and deal with stressful situations better. What we need to pay attention to is how we use this opportunity: if we don’t abuse fatty fast foods for it but instead turn to a variety of the following foods, our stress levels can be positively modified. Believe it or not (but better do believe it), comfort foods such as a batch of roasted sweet potato with hummus or a breakfast bowl with warming porridge can work wonders! These foods boost our serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that works to calm the brain by reducing anxiety and depression. To boost your serotonin levels even more, eat complex carbohydrates such as whole grain breads, pastas and oats. Complex carbohydrates also help your blood sugar levels to remain stable rather than spiking and quickly falling which would be counterproductive to reducing stress. Furthermore, it is suggested that vitamin C aids in reducing cortisol levels (a hormone that is released in response to stress) so eating paprika, drinking lemon juice or treating yourself to a juicy orange can have very positive effects on how you deal with stress!
Magnesium is another factor that oftentimes gets overlooked; if we lack this mineral, we may suffer from headaches and fatigue so making sure that our system is supplied with sufficient magnesium can combat stress in advance. Omega-3 fatty acids (such as found in salmon and mackerel) can also immensely help your body to counteract stress as it reduces the risk for heart disease and aids mental health, thereby relieving stress-related pathophysiology. If you follow a vegan diet, I urge you to find another good source of omega-3 such as flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts (you can of course also take omega-3 supplements, but I prefer to receive as many nutrients through my diet as possible – nature has it all!). Another thing that may help you to effectively reduce your stress without turning to overeating when it’s already too late is this; have yourself a little tea ceremony. Drinking tea, such as chamomile, lavender, lemon balm and green tea can help you recover from stressful situations in a very soothing and gentle way. Studies showed that tea-drinkers have lower cortisol levels compared to non-tea-drinkers. Apart from the antioxidant-compounds in tea leaves, tea drinking slots can have a very comforting, quieting effect on your everyday routine. Reserve yourself this 5-10 minute slot for peace and calm, treat yourself to a refuge where you feel safe and comfortable to turn inwards, focus on your breath and practice mindfulness. Nothing else requires your attention in this very moment.
I could go on with mentioning foods that are helpful for reducing stress, but I think these are enough for now to occupy your mind and stick with you for either managing acute stress or preventing it. Maybe you already have your own food-related strategy to cope with stress better and these are little add-ons you can incorporate into your routine. If you’d like to share your personal view on this topic, please send me a message, I am more than curious to learn how you guys treat this issue. Alright then, I’m off to make some tea because that’s what it’s all about! ♥